A group of Thai monks has caught international attention for their innovative approach to reducing plastic waste: turning used bottles and bags into brand-new monastic robes and masks.
The Buddhist temple of Wat Chak Daeng has been on a mission to reduce plastic waste in Thailand for years.
The country suffers from the sixth-largest amount of waste in the world, and as people dedicated to serving others spiritually, the monks also felt a personal responsibility to improve their environment. At first, they tried burning plastic but soon realized the fumes were having a negative impact on the environment.
They needed a different solution.
“We didn’t know what to do,” Phra Maha Pranom Dhammalangkaro, the temple’s lead monk, told Great Big Story last September. “So we tried to find a resolution.”
Ten years earlier, Dhammalangkaro went on an inquest to Taiwan in the hopes of learning about recycling methods.
It was there, at the Tzu Chi Foundation, that the monk learned how plastic can be broken down into small fabric-like fibers.
“I learned that plastic can be made into fabric,” Dhammalangkaro said. “I came up with the idea of making plastic into monastic robes.”
When he returned home, the temple tried the methods themselves. They were overjoyed to discover that this was a very practical and useful way to reuse plastic waste.
“Once we succeeded,” he said, “we announced that whoever wanted to throw away plastic bottles can donate them to us to make monastic robes.”
Plastic waste began arriving at the temple by the ton. Currently, the temple collects nearly 4 tons of materials each month.
At the temple, monks crush the plastic and ship it to a factory, which turns the plastic into fibers, which is then returned to the temple, where the monks then transform the fibers into robes. From the soft look of the fabric, an onlooker might never imagine it was made from items like recycled plastic bottles.
Dhammalangkaro added that their project has gained momentum over time.
“At the beginning,” he explained, “we received two tons for the whole year. But once people learned that plastics can be made into this and that, people sent [plastic] from all over the country.”
The Thai government even asked fishermen to collect garbage from the water while fishing. Dhammalangkaro says the fishing boats collect a lot of garbage, and the waterways are getting cleaner every year.
The monks’ initiative also includes educating the population about recycling and encouraging people not to throw things away.
According to Inspire More, the monks also employ homemakers, retirees, and individuals with disabilities to help with the process.
“Everyone can benefit from recycling,” the lead monk told Great Big Story. “It creates a circular economy, which is very useful. This is why we need to pass on knowledge.”
He pointed out that old monastic robes can be recycled into bedsheets, tablecloths, or cleaning cloths. Even old scraps of fabric that used to be used for cleaning can be used to mix with the plaster that’s used to line the monks’ living quarters.
“Everything doesn’t have to be thrown away,” he said. “We can collect it and use it to benefit us again.”